Phoenix Hall, Uji, Japan c.1052. Photo by Bruce Richardson

How did the Book of Tea help inspire architect Frank Lloyd Wright? The first siting of a Japanese building by Wright happened not while touring Japan in 1905.

The setting was the Japanese exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

The Japanese pavilion (Ho-o-den), modeled after an 11th century temple in Uji, was coordinated by Okakura Kakuzo, the 30 year-old director of the Tokyo University School of Art who would go on to write The Book of Tea in 1906.

Just as Wright was beginning his career, the young architect was inspired to incorporate the Japanese temple’s steep-pitched roof details and wide-hanging eaves in early home designs.

I recently gave a lecture at Yamaguchi Prefectural University on The Book of Tea’s influence on American art and architecture. I began my talk by asking the audience to retrieve a ten yen coin from their pockets. The back of the coin proudly displays the original Ho-o-den, or Phoenix Hall, one of the most famous buildings in Japan.

The replica of the sweeping temple made an impression on Chicagoans as it was being constructed on a wooded isle in the middle of a lagoon designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead.

The entire building had been crafted in Japan, disassembled, crated and shipped to the site – along with Japanese artisans – where it was re-assembled with simple hand tools.

In the middle of a busy fairgrounds dedicated to America’s industrial might, the quiet island oasis, with its peaceful pavilion lit at night by candle fairy lights, became a favorite respite for millions of weary fair-goers who traveled from across the nation and the world.

Ho-o-den (Phoenix Hall) erected by the Japanese government for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

As a guide for attendees, Okakura Kakuzo wrote an Illustrated Description of the Ho-o-den in English. In the booklet, he gave detailed descriptions of the interior rooms, paintings, carvings, and furnishings which exemplified Japan’s artistic accomplishments dating from the era when Columbus was setting sail for his discoveries in America.

Included in one of the rooms, Okakura presented all the utensils needed for a tea ceremony.

Portions of the Ho-o-den remained on the island as a gift from the Japanese even after the majority of temporary fair buildings were dismantled or burned. The only original building standing in Jackson Park today is the current Science and Industry Museum.

The Ranma Panels, restored and on display at the Chicago Art Institute.

Sadly, the beautiful Ho-o-den was destroyed by arsonists in the 1940s. The only remaining pieces of the exhibit are four carved Ranma Panels recently restored and displayed in the Japan wing of the Chicago Art Institute. I had the joy of seeing those glorious relics last year with curator Janice Katz.

Auditorium wall at Taliesin West.

Well, what about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Book of Tea? On one of his visits, Wright was given a copy of Okakura’s book by the Japanese ambassador.

One particular entry made a lasting impression on the architect. So much so, that Wright had the quote embedded in the auditorium wall at his Taliesin West studios, located outside Scottsdale, Arizona.

The reality of the building does not consist in the roof and walls but in the space within to be lived.

Okakura quotes Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu as he uses this idea of vacuum to describe the space of a tearoom. 

Wright incorporated the Asian concept in his design philosophy. For students of tea, this spirit can be discovered when entering a Wright-designed home or a Japanese tea house – or while gazing into an empty tea bowl.

While in Tokyo last December, I made a pilgrimage to the Wright-designed bar at the Imperial Hotel. I sat in that beautiful space and raised a glass to the memories of Wright and Okakura, and to the artist spirit that continues to bind America with Japan.


Bruce Richardson lectures on The Book of Tea at Yamaguchi Prefectural University Humanities Class, December 2016.


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